| June 15, 2021

RPE and Percentage in Powerlifting

Everyone has a different way to reach their goal in regards to strength and power, above all else if there is progressive overload, you will continue to grow as long as you stay patient and monitor your level of fatigue.

By Steven Fitzpatrick

Read time: 3 min.

Everyone has a different way to reach their goal in regards to strength and power, above all else if there is progressive overload, you will continue to grow as long as you stay patient and monitor your level of fatigue. In my belief, programming, or a form of tracking is of utmost importance when creating an efficient method for growth, especially for strength gains.

Percentages, that which is generally calculated off of a 1RM, is typically a percentage vs. rep scheme for sets, where RPE (ratings of perceived exertion) is done based off of how difficult the exercise feels to the athlete, RIR (reps in reserve) would be an indicator of how many reps the athlete is able to do until absolute failure.

The main difference between percentage and RPE is that percentage based programming is objective, you have a number set in front of you that you are aiming to accomplish in that said day or microcycle, where RPE is very subjective. There are pros and cons to both of them, I believe that a combination of both are very important when properly performed, so there is no real right and wrong answer, both are extremely effective methods. An athlete may feel that an RPE 8 (2 RIR) may feel more like a RPE 9 (1 RIR) initially it may be a better method in my opinion to start an athlete with percentage base, as having it be a more objective method may have the individual pushing to reach that number to the best of their ability, you can therefore monitor yourself to figure out where an RPE may fall in with that category. RPE may have a better place fo the athlete who has shift work for example or who finds that their energy for personal reasons is inconsistent, this allows adjustments along that microcycle (week) although this has to come down to the honesty of ego and perseverance, if those two factors aren’t applied, you may find yourself over or undershooting and having an incorrect number to work with

A good example of when to use RPE most effectively and almost undebatable in comparison to percentages would be for volume work and a number of accessories, as this portion of the workout is generally more based around hypertrophy and volume. If you were to be doing something such as a tricep extension, it makes much more sense to use a reps in reserve method, because ultimately, when would you ever go for a 1RM tricep extension? If you are, then your program might need some minor adjustments.

The following are brief examples of how one might use both methods independently, and thereafter, how both can be combined, which is my favorite method. I utilized percentage based methods for a very long time in my strength and power career, but being open to other areas allows for growth and development in areas that can be lacking.

Back squat (RPE)
Weeks 1-5

170kg - 5x5 RPE 7
172.5 - 5x5 RPE 7.5
175kg - 4x5 @ RPE 8
180kg - 4x5 @ RPE 8.5
185 - 3x5 @ RPE 8.5-9


1RM of 170kg
Weeks 1-5

110.5kg 4x10 @ 65%
119kg @4x8-10 @ 70%
127.5kg @ 4x7-8 @ 75%
136kg @ 3x6-8 @ 80%
140.25kg @ 3x6 @ 82.5%

Depending on the method that you are using alongside the context in which it is being used for, there are several reasons why you can and should combine percentage and RPE, especially when peaking close to competition.

For example
250kg 1rm

3x3 @ RPE 7, - 3 backoff sets at@ 70% (6-8 reps)
3x3 @ RPE 7.5, - 3 backoff sets @ 82.5% (6 reps)
3x3 @ RPE 8, - 3 backoff sets @ 85% (5-6 reps)
3x3 @ RPE 9, - 3 backoff sets@ 90% (3-4 reps)

The way that the above is set, is very dependent on the level of the athlete, this may change up the number drastically. Personally I favor more percentage based training, I prefer having the number in front of me and have understood how to manage fatigue very effectively over the years, where you may find yourself with it may be dependant on how you are as an athlete, both choices are a good choice, it's a matter of finding out whether you are more subjective or objective based as a lifter.

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